Magazine article Marketing

Subversion: The Secret of Brand Creation

Magazine article Marketing

Subversion: The Secret of Brand Creation

Article excerpt

Conglomerate culture is causing creative fatigue. Great ideas, argues Mike Hewitt, come from staff who ignore the rules and go underground

You're UK marketing director for a multinational foods company, and you've noticed something rather disturbing. For the past two years, all the time you haven't spent worrying about own-label, warehouse clubs, discounters and the increasing power of the retailers seems to have been spent on pedestrian line extensions and lacklustre launch ideas. Where, you can't help asking yourself, is the modern Mars Bar?

What your company is suffering from is Creative Sclerosis. It's an unpleasant condition, often exacerbated by prolonged recession, in which marketing executives of larger companies lose their capacity for independent thought. Cowed by the fear of getting something wrong, they huddle together in groups for security, agreeing that, yes, coming up with a new formulation for a nice safe brand would be the best thing all round.

The symptoms can be distressing: smaller, fitter companies will jump into your market with the innovative products you might have launched yourself. Buyers will start to glaze over as you present your idea for the ice-cream bar based on your successful gravy browning brand. And your own team will drift away to jobs with younger, more exciting firms.

The problem isn't a new one. Companies have been wrestling with the problem of how to encourage genuinely new ideas for at least 30 years. But as the UK's deep recession recedes, getting new products on to the shelves has become more important - and more difficult - than ever.

"The risk is that a manufacturer in recession becomes conservative or, in the face of the challenge from own-label, becomes complacent and says 'Oh no, it won't happen to my brand'," says John Chandler, commercial director of Cadbury Schweppes Beverages. "You have to invest and you have to be aggressive. We launched Gini in 1991 at a time many companies wouldn't consider a major new product launch with the investment that's required."

Even Gini, however, was not a new idea. The brand already existed in France. Since launch, admits Chandler, it's "done well, though not as well as it could have done".

The Gini launch was brave, but it wasn't genuine new product development. Neither was another launch for Cadbury Schweppes, Cresta. Where Gini was an import, Cresta was a rave from the grave. "It's been a phenomenal success, for the sole reason that it positions itself on price, but with a brand name that is familiar to people from 20 years ago," says Chandler. "It's been tremendously successful because of recession - it's an unusual strategy for a branded company to take but one that's been tremendously successful."

One of the reasons for the relative success of "recycled" brands with a history is the caution of supermarket buyers. Ray McGee, marketing director of Derwent Valley Foods, saw a succession of new products hit the shelves in the 80s. Now, he says, it's a very different game.

"Whereas two or three years ago they'd say 'what we want is new products' - especially to us who were innovators in adult snacks - now they're saying, 'what we want is another tortilla chip. We don't really want this new thing you've got...we don't have very much space you know.' Of course, the reason they don't have very much space is that they're piling it full of own-label."

So genuine new products risk being stifled - and that's reason enough for large companies to concentrate on what retailers know will sell, especially when nervous stockholders are watching every move.

But if the big boys aren't careful, that policy will leave the innovation field open to the smaller companies. "If I'm Mars, I've got a big portfolio anyway, I'm brand leader, I'm going to spend on advertising, promotion, buying shelf space and stay with it. If I'm number two or three then if I'm going to get into a store I've got to have something that's different from a Mars Bar," argues McGee. …

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